The last man who knew everything (about bread)

Mostly if I want to find out about something (I call it ‘research’ when I’m feeling self-important), I look on Wikipedia. If I need to go a bit deeper then I make a big stack of books on the subject and make notes on them. When I’m choosing books to pile up, I try to accommodate factors such as accuracy, scholarly currency, concision, lay-person accessibility, and so on: basically I want books that tell me how the topic looks to the current generation of experts, clearly and precisely, without confusing me with excessive technicality. When it comes to humanities subjects I can tolerate a fair degree of technicality, and even enjoy it to a degree, but basically, whenever I actually need to find out about something in this kind of a purposeful way, it’s pretty much always because it’s relevant to my all-consuming obsession—constructing a fantasy world and setting stories in it. So it is with bread and baking. However, one of the books I stacked up, on my mum’s recommendation (she is a food historian), was this slim volume by Abraham Edlin, published in 1805. Current it is not, but it is one of very few detailed contemporary accounts of what bread-making looked like prior to the radical changes and industrialisation of the nineteenth century—bakers were a guild trade, guarding their professional practices jealously, and the first book on the topic by an actual baker was several decades away at this point.

Edlin was a physician, who attended a regular lecture/conversation series at Guy’s Hospital, where various members of the medical fraternity would present papers on interesting topics. Edlin’s book was worked up from a presentation he gave on bread and baking. One of its greatest attractions is the window it offers into the intellectual life of the era, late in the Enlightenment, just before what we might regard as the scientific-industrial age got rolling. The man’s curiosity and attention to detail is charming, as is his incredibly pompous way with prose, and I found his book, unexpectedly, to be a real reading pleasure, as well as a valuable source of information. He begins with grain farming, moves on to the ‘mealing trade’ (a surprisingly fascinating chapter), before describing a series of experiments he conducted to analyse the chemistry of flour and yeast. He didn’t get it all right, but his description of his methods is fascinating, and illuminates the very end of the era in which well-educated men knew ‘everything’ (Thomas Young 1773-1829 was known as ‘the last man who knew everything’)—not only does he conduct original chemical research, but he offers an expert (if somewhat tedious) account of the legal framework attending baking (the assize laws), as well as the aforementioned farming and grain trades, and the actual business of bread-making itself. His accounts provided me with some valuable source material, particularly those parts relating to the storage of and trade in grain, and to the practicalities of baking itself—he provides a valuable, detailed list of all the equipment to be found in the bakehouses of his day; but A Treatise On The Art Of Bread-Making is a real pleasure in and of itself, and Edlin emerges from its pages as a very likeable, positive character, full of interest in the world and sympathy for his fellow humans.

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